April 8, 2015

The Connected Car is Within our Grasp

CamaroMy first car was a 1973 Camaro, and it had all the technology advances of a wet sponge: Power windows – nope; hydraulic clutch – nope; air conditioning – only when the car was moving forward; power steering – well, yes, it did have that. But what it lacked in technology it made up for in character (and Bondo).

My next car took a technological leap and in addition to the creature comforts of modern cars, it included remote keyless entry, which was something that most cars did not have at that time. The next car added the Microsoft Sync system and its wonderful speech recognition technology. And the latest one has an iOS app that lets me start the car (well, technically it turns it on, because it’s electric) and even send a destination to the navigation system.

Each one of these cars shows a steady and progressive path along the way to a connected car. While no one single car seems to have all of these systems, these are all the building blocks that can be put together to form one great car.

We need a common understanding for a connected car

The term “connected car” can mean different things to different people, so let’s start with establishing a common definition of the term. For the purpose of this article I’m focused on the connection between a driver and the car – the items and technology that allow the driver to really understand and communicate with the car. This is both person-centric (e.g. a smartphone) and car-centric (e.g. a hands-free speech recognition system), and also refers to the connection between the person and the car.

But it could also mean…

WatchThere are some other things that commonly come to mind when you think of a connected car. Self-driving cars are a good example, because of all the technology that is involved, but this technology is focused on giving the car a perception of the environment and how to maneuver around within it; not specifically to communicate with it though. Smart roads are another example, where cars can communicate with each other and the roadway in order to maneuver around within it, but again the car is not communicating and connecting with us.

The components of a connected car

For us humans, we need some device that is external to the car to initiate the communication, and to take how we think, speak, etc. and translate that into something the car (machine) can understand. Any of our senses could be used to communicate, but we typically use oral forms (e.g. speak a command) or tactile forms (e.g. touching a screen); motion is another form, but it is not as precise. So, we’ll need a device to capture the oral or tactile, which could be as large as a tablet computer or as small as a ring, but will probably be a smartphone or smartwatch as these provide the balance between device size and interface size.

And then for the car, it needs a device (or multiple devices) that allow it to take input and perform some action. This could include the ability to process speech (e.g. the Microsoft Sync system) or touch (e.g. keypads on the outside of doors), or it may only be an interface for a “machine” signal to be processed. The more integrated the systems, the more actions can be performed. So while some cars may just have a radio or navigation system, others may link in additional systems like door locks, windows, tire pressure, climate, diagnostics, or even propulsion.

Lastly, if the translation takes place with the person, it then needs to be communicated to the car. This could take many forms including infrared, radio waves, short-range bluetooth, medium-range wifi, or long-range cellular.

ShapesCan this be done, or will it always be just a few years away?

As I said above, we have a lot of the building blocks, and the challenges to fill in the blanks and put them together are not too large to overcome. For now, we have to work within the constraints of the current refresh cycle for automobiles, which can be 5 years compared with software updates of less than a year. There’s also more market potential with new cars, rather than used cars, so more movement will be done by the new car manufacturers, compared with the aftermarket companies.

We have the devices: smartphone apps, like the OnStar app, let me communicate with my Volt; smartwatches, like the Apple Watch, provide an interface for quick commands to unlock or start; computers in the cars allow for systems to be integrated in a single location; sensors can react to changes and provide information back out.

We have the communication: Bluetooth is a low-power communication technology good for short distances, that could replace the RFID chips in most key fobs; cellular technology allows for communication beyond the range of bluetooth; wifi can be used when available, or if larger amounts of data need to be transferred.

We have the systems: sensors in tires can communicate when the pressure is low; motors in the doors can lock and unlock; speech recognition, like Sync, lets me communicate with my voice; software can be updated remotely, bring new functionality or performance.

Progress and innovation comes from both sides of the equation

Automobile manufacturers are pushing forward with connected car systems, but are almost exclusively approaching it from an in-house perspective. Systems like uConnect, Entune, and MyLink are all developed by the respective manufacturer, and provide similar functionality with varying interfaces. However, manufacturers are starting to look outside at both Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay, because consumers are familiar with their personal devices, and expect a similar experience with their car.

The real breakthrough will be when the infotainment system moves beyond its space in the car and starts to link with all the other systems. We’re close in some areas, for example with Sync triggering a vehicle diagnostic that is sent via the (driver’s) mobile device’s cellular connection, and the OnStar app displaying the current tire pressure. Tesla is pushing the boundaries with over-the-air software updates for performance improvements, and warning drivers if they will be out of range of a charging station.

It all comes down to the interface

As with any human-machine interaction, the key point is the interface, specifically the visual interface of the software. A car or device can be packed with all the hardware-based controls and gadgets, but it’s the software that makes them usable, and performs the translation. A compelling experience with a connected car is one where the user does not have to think about how to communicate – does not have to translate their own thoughts into the language of the machine – but rather where the interface takes care of the translation. And this is usually the stumbling block that many infotainment systems hit on their way to the connected car. Circular motions to interact with a horizontal and vertical interface, information architecture that hides key commands under poorly worded headings, and touch interfaces with no tactile feedback are all examples of a poor interface.

When you start from the perspective of the user, and really understand how the user will interact with the car, you can design the software and the visual interface to be seamless and natural to the user. A good visual interface means that the user never has to think “how do I perform this action?”

How I will interact with my car in 5 years?

Much like all of my prior car upgrades, in 5 years my new car will have taken a technological leap making my interaction with it more seamless. I’m a car guy, and so cars already feel like a part of my life, but the interaction with them will just feel more natural. Some of these already exist in some form, but it’s still not seamless (e.g. doors can unlock and the seat position can be set, but I have to make sure I have the correct key fob) and they’re not all together in one car.

With a quick tap on my watch, I can turn on the climate control in the car so it’s comfortable when I get in. As I approach the car it will automatically unlock the driver’s door, and set the seat, steering, and mirror positions; it will know who I am, and that I’m the primary driver of the vehicle. Before I start the car it has received an update on the traffic conditions on my route, which it received from my smartphone based upon my next appointment on my calendar, it warns me of any potential delays along the way and suggests alternatives. In the car I can ask Siri to set a reminder for when I get to the office, and then to start playing my Mashup playlist. During the day I get a notification from my car that one of my tires is low, and that the nearest service station with an air pump will add 10 minutes to my drive home. When I get home, my hands are full, but as I close the door and walk away it locks automatically.

Green iconSo will Apple make this car?

There are some signs of movement in that area: CarPlay could be an intermediate step before a full device, and the auto manufacturers have pledged to support it; Apple hired away a bunch of engineers from A123 Systems, but this could just be for improved batteries in their other hardware, like the new MacBook; an Apple mini-van has been spotted driving around silicon valley, but this could be for improvements to the maps app.

I usually look to Apple’s guiding vision that has been spoken of for many years: Apple exists at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. The farther away a product is from that intersection, the less likely it is for them to build. Is an Apple car near that intersection? I’m not sure. The cell phone industry was a pretty closed system with a high barrier to entry, but they found a way in without having to do everything themselves. So I don’t think that they will try to do the whole car themselves, and instead they will focus on the experience between the human and the information, while letting others take care of the infrastructure (i.e. engine, transmission, “fuel” supply, etc.).

The successful connected car will have to understand the user, and build the interface around the user. It won’t just be about the technology and putting in as much as possible into a car, but it will be about how a person interacts with that technology without having to think about it. And it’s something that my ‘73 Camaro can only dream about.